RELIGHTING THE FIRE

LIFE AFTER FACTORY RACING: DIRIACTION TAKES YOU ON AN EXCLUSIVE RIDE WITH AUSTRALIA’S ENDURO ICON

When Geoff Ballard resigned manager of Australia’s longest- standing enduro team last year, he set himself free. Years of devotion to steering a dominant force of riders towards becoming Australian champions was a burden now lifted from his shoulders.

While he certainly hadn’t severed all ties with the Yamaha family he’d long been campaigning for — nor were they about to abandon him — he was momentarily lost. The all-consuming world of chasing championships, race budgets, race bikes and rider contracts quickly drained from his consciousness.

But anxiety soon turned to excitement as the prospect of being able to go back to dirtbike racing now stared him in the face. GB wasted no time conjuring a plan to get back to his roots, get back to the old tracks and get back to racing!

On a whim, he requested a 2013 YZ250 from Yamaha Australia. His wish was granted and like a kid on Christmas day he was soon uncrating a rigid piece of two-stroke weaponry. On this day, the only thing out-gleaming GB’s pride was the pristine YZ. While strapping up his CTi knee braces, he’d glance across at its stunning aluminium metallurgy and glossy blue ergos. Beneath a Fox lid and Scott goggles, he gazed out at his own private test track, a brutal bush MX circuit scarred and formed by the best of the best. Merriman, Kearney, Williscroft, Hollis, Bewley and Phillips have all rocked this particular mountain valley during rain, fog and dust, but none know it quite like its owner and creator.

As the first crack of the YZ echoes across the valley, GB clears its throat with a few revs, as if to signify a new beginning. He rolls out onto the beaten, square-edged surface with the grace of someone who’s done it a thousand times before. He’s spent hours building championship-winning bikes and riders on this track, which in the truest sense of the term is his turf.

He eases into it, gear for gear, corner for corner and, before completing half a lap, the reality of the situation jolts him: «I might as well book myself into hospital now; I can’t ride this thing.»

Enduring the bone-rattling YZ for another four laps, GB grips the rigid rocket in fear, circulating like a crash waiting to happen. Luckily for the seasoned enduro icon, the YZ fouls a plug. He wheels the disabled animal back to the shed, where it’s quarantined until sold to a suitable owner: a hyperactive young motocrosser with a full supply of testosterone and bone cartilage.

«What was I thinking…?»

Some weeks pass and GB has an epiphany: «You know what? I don’t really need to be tied to one manufacturer any more.» And with that, he opens his mind to the greater world of dirtbikes.

Given GB ate, slept and breathed Yamaha for the last decade, any other motorcycle brand would be foreign to him. Plus, despite having a collection of vintage Maico two-strokes taking up the majority of his shed space, his next ride had to be something as good as the recent WR450F models he’d won so many races on.

I’ve long had conversations with Geoff regarding bike setup, fork action, triple clamp offset, power delivery and all the stuff that makes for a great ride. I’ve learnt many things from the man over the years, but what’s interesting is just how much attention he’s paid to the comments I’ve made on the bikes I’ve tested over the years.

Now, I’m not saying it’s the reason why, nor did he even ask my opinion on any 2013 bikes, but let’s just say it was no surprise to me when he bought himself a new 2013 ‘Berg FE450. Up to 2012, I’ve ridden every capacity and style of motocross and enduro bike worth riding and, if there’s been a standout in the enduro game, it’s the 2010-2012 Husaberg range, if only for their suspension and trustworthy front end.

It’s no secret that GB likes his bikes to have a forgiving and predictable front end; so much so, he raced several seasons with the super-plush, super-flexi TT-R 250 fork in the front of his WR450F. And yeah, the old-school fork on a modern bike is not a pretty sight, but you can’t question the man unless you’re over 50 and can ride as fast as he can.

While I’m not over 50, GB and I have generally been about the same pace over the years. We ride different classes but always check the outright results to see if we’ve beaten one another. It wasn’t till the 2011 A4DE in Mackay that I finally (in his words) «smoked»‘ him. And yeah, my riding has progressed over the years but I think my little victory over Ballard was more indicative of the fact that the latter stages of his life as a team manager had really affected his racing.

I wasn’t really aware of this until a recent visit to his farm/moto compound. I too have pounded out my fair share of laps on his notorious track, which I also use to gauge how good or bad I’m going on any new magazine test bike etc. On this day, I was circulating on DAs 2013 KTM 300EXC long-termer. I’ve got some better suspension in the thing and am apparently riding GB’s track better than I have in a lone time. Subsequently, GB had grown well accustomed to his new FE450 ‘Berg and was also circulating around the track better than he had in years. «I’m back! I dropped off the pace a bit in the last couple of years but now I’m back on Riemann’s pace,» GB contentedly announced to one of the mote visitors that frequent his property.

You see, GB and I get into a velodrome-type battle where we’re circulating at opposite ends of the track yet make visual contact with each other every lap at one exact point so we’ve got a clear gauge on who’s doing the quicker lap time. We simply cannot be on the track at the same time without this mind game unfolding. I start nailing lines, pushing my limit a little further, accelerating harder, braking later and string together a lap that will have put at least two seconds on GB — only to find he’s done exactly the same thing and we cross each other at the exact same point as the last lap. It really intensifies an otherwise comfortable ride.

So, one thing’s for sure: GB is getting back to being fit and fast, which for his age is both awesome and inspirational. The fact he’s a free agent now has definitely reset his passion for bikes. He’s tinkering, tuning, modifying and riding the wheels off anything he damn well pleases. From BMW GSA1200S to TT-R250S, he’s got a bike for every occasion.

He even went and bought a new 2013 CRF450R as a dedicated AMCROSS/ grass-track weapon. Perhaps it’s like his YZ250 experiment all over again, only this time he’s going to try and tame it.

Regardless, I think the greater enduro community will be pleased to know that Ballard will well and truly be back on the scene. He plans on doing half the AORC rounds and possibly the A4DE, he’s even keen on some racing in the USA and a handful of various events in 2013.

I don’t think he plans on slowing down just yet.

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